I get asked this quite a bit. I’d imagine because there’s kind of a bad stigma around anything deemed “unnatural” in the world of food production. When most of us think of butter, we think of butter made from cow’s milk. So, if a product claims to be vegan butter, and not margarine (or vegetable spread, etc.) it seems a bit odd.
So, what exactly is vegan butter? Vegan butter is simply another term for margarine, but with the condition that the margarine is free of animal products (e.g. milk derivatives). Formulations vary, but most vegan butters are some combination of plant oils, water, preservatives, flavoring agents, and emulsifiers.
You might be thinking “Wait… isn’t all margarine free of animal products? Isn’t margarine defined as a buttery tasting spread made from hydrogenated plant oils?” While margarine is generally plant-based, there are a few popular brands on the market that contain milk derivatives.
Hence, vegan butter is margarine without animal-derived additives.
What we’ll do here is go over each of the ingredients common to 100% plant-based butters.
Common Ingredients in Vegan Butter
One day we’ll be telling our grandkids that back in the olden days there was something called trans fat. It was an innovation in food manufacturing that allowed plant oils to be whipped up into a buttery like substance we called margarine.
The prefix “trans” is an organic chemistry term that’s used to describe isomers. If two molecules have the same chemical formula but are arranged differently, they’re called isomers. Chemists use the cis and trans designations to refer to how the atoms are oriented.
Food scientists found out that you could rearrange an unsaturated fatty acid to the trans position such that it would switch from a bent orientation to one that’s long and linear. This allowed the unsaturated FA chains to make close contact with one another in the same way that long linear saturated FA chains do.
When FAs make close contact, they become solid at room temperature. Thus, you can take plant oils, convert the FAs to trans FAs and they can take on a solid consistency just like that of butter.
Trans fats are notoriously unhealthy, even more so than saturated fats, so food processors took to finding other ways to create buttery spreads with plant oils.
Nowadays, the basic method for making margarine involves the emulsification of a blend of vegetable fats and oils, which are modified via interesterification.1-3
It used to be done with partial hydrogenation, which is the process of passing hydrogen atoms through oil in the presence of a nickel catalyst.4
After interesterification, the oils are then chilled and processed to reach the desired texture.
Sometimes milk is used during processing, which is what renders some margarines non-vegan. But, a lot of margarine manufacturers do not use milk and we consider these products to be “vegan butter”.
Keep in mind that the term butter can be used for any spreadable, edible substance. We use it for peanut butter, after all… and shea butter… the list goes on.
So, cows do not have a monopoly on the term.
Sunflower or soy lecithin and mono-/diglycerides are common emulsifiers used in vegan butter.
Lecithin is a compound that emulsifies ingredients—which is a fancy way of saying it helps ingredients stay nice and mixed. One end of the molecule attracts water, while the other end attracts fat, thus helping oil and water mix when they’d otherwise prefer to stay separated.5
Egg yolks also contain lecithin, but I’m not aware of any margarine that uses lecithin from eggs. It’s always sunflower or soy.
Mono- and diglycerides are also commonly used emulsifiers in vegan butter. You’ve probably heard of triglycerides, or TGs, the form of fat that inhabits our fat cells. Mono- and diglycerides have one and two fatty acids (respectively) bound to a glycerol backbone, instead of three FAs in TGs.6
Unlike soy and sunflower lecithin, mono- and diglycerides have somewhat of a controversial reputation in the vegan community, because they’re produced from triglycerides which can be sourced from animal fat.7
But, TGs are commonly sourced from plants, so diglycerides are not considered non-vegan by most standards.
If you’re an extra prudent vegan, you may want to stick with margarines that list “plant diglycerides” on the food panel—which is somewhat common, especially with trendier brands that market to health-conscious crowds.
Natural and Artificial Flavors
Some compounds that are naturally present in butter, and are partly responsible for its characteristic taste, can be produced via chemical synthesis and thus are considered suitable for vegans.
Artificial butter flavoring usually contains acetoin, diacetyl, or acetyl propionyl, three natural compounds that provide that butter popcorn flavor. I remember when the popcorn flavored Jelly Bellys first came out and how shocking it was to bite into them when you didn’t know ahead of time that the typically sweet jelly bean was so savory.
So, yeah… they make butter taste pretty realistic.
Anyway, manufacturers have to add in such ingredients, because the end product would be relatively tasteless without them—it would taste like solid canola oil.8
Besides the oil, emulsifiers, and flavorings, other ingredients common in vegan butter include:
- Plan protein, such as pea protein
- Vitamin A Palmitate and Beta-Carotene (Color)
- Vitamin D
- Potassium Sorbate
- Lactic Acid
- Calcium Disodium EDTA (To Protect Freshness)
Lactic acid is not to be confused with lactose, the natural sugar found in milk. Industrially, lactic acid is generally made from LA-producing bacteria. So, it’s generally considered vegan.9
Vitamin A palmitate, contains palmitic acid, an FA that is commonly sourced from palm oil but can also be derived from animals.10
Most vegans don’t scrutinize such ingredients too heavily, because they’re often completely vegan-friendly, and there’s really no way to know if they trace back to animals short of reaching out to food manufacturers directly.
That’s it for now. Thanks for reading.
- Making Trans-Fat Free Margarine. https://www.mcgill.ca/oss/article/science-science-everywhere/making-trans-fat-free-margarine
- Margarine. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margarine
- Baker Christopher G.J; Ranken H.D; Kill R.C., eds. (1997). Food industries manual. 24th Edition. Springer. pp. 285–289. ISBN 978-0-7514-0404-3.
- Babaeu, Z; Nikoopour, H; Safafar, H (2007). “A comparison of commercial nickel catalysts effects on hydrogenation of soybean oil” (PDF). World Applied Sciences Journal. 2 (6): 621–626. http://www.idosi.org/wasj/wasj2(6)/10.pdf
- Anton M, and G Gandemer. Composition, solubility, and emulsifying properties of granules and plasma of egg yolk. Journal of Food Science 62(3):484–487, 1997.
- IUPAC, Compendium of Chemical Terminology, 2nd ed. (the “Gold Book”) (1997). Online corrected version: (2006–) “glycerides”
- Sonntag, Norman O. V. (1982). “Glycerolysis of fats and methyl esters — Status, review, and critique”. Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society. 59 (10): 795A–802A.
- Pavia; et al. Introduction to Organic Laboratory Techniques (4th ed.). ISBN 978-0-495-28069-9.
- Lactic Acid. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lactic_acid#Production
- Animal-derived Ingredients Resource | Living https://www.peta.org/living/food/animal-ingredients-list/